Chapter Two – Endings And Beginnings
How quickly life can change. Jack turned in his bed and looked upon the part of the mattress she used to occupy. He stroked the pillow upon which she had placed her head for fifteen years. Closing his eyes, he imagined her long hair fanning the pillow as he moved his finger down her cheek. He didn’t want to open his eyes. He didn’t want to see the lonesome pillow devoid of her presence. Instead, he turned in the other direction. Often they would sleep back to back. If he kept his eyes closed and turned the other way, he could continue with his fantasy.
“Oh, Marilyn,” he sighed. “Why didn’t you use the earpiece I got you?” She persisted in driving with her head tilted to her shoulder as she rushed from one place to another. She was such an active person, and travelled from her early-morning workout to her full-time job to her dance classes to her political meetings. Jack was eternally in awe of her energy level. Because of her schedule, housework was neglected. They often laughed at the laundry and dishes that piled up each week, the mail that wasn’t checked in time to avoid late fees, and the telephone messages that weren’t returned. Jack would tease Marilyn about her “laziness”. With a rakish smile, she would then give him a playful punch. “I’ll show you how lazy I am,” she replied with a sly grin. Their day usually ended in passionate embraces and orgasmic groans, rendering any minor imperfections irrelevant.
It was one busy day too many, one time too many of awkwardly holding her phone to her ear. Dusk is the time of day when the deer emerge. There was an annoying constant drizzle; a factor that never challenged Marilyn as she bolted through her day, oblivious to minor obstacles. She saw the deer, she dropped her phone, and her hands slipped off the steering wheel.
Witnesses said the car went into a spin before hitting the embankment and rolling over. The driver behind her tried to swerve out of the way but she spun toward him. Jack tried to not think of the pain and the terror. Her final words lingered in his mind. “I’m sorry.” Some nights, he yelled at her. “Why didn’t you wear a seat belt? Why didn’t you use the earpiece? I have nothing now!” But his anger melted into a well of remorse. “I miss you so much. I miss us.” He missed how it felt to walk into a restaurant with her. All the envious male faces and jealous female glares followed them, especially her, as they cruised toward the assigned table. Jack was half of a vital couple, and their combined energy suffused the room. But that reality was now only a fantasy. He’s a disengaged electron, separated from the nucleus that was its center, lost in a plasma field of abandoned leptons, spinning and spinning in search of some resolution, some meaning, some relief. Just a few months ago, he was confident and sophisticated; he had rapidly devolved into a pathetic despondent creature, in a desperate search for a replacement intimacy. Now the envious eyes belonged to him.
When he was Marilyn’s partner, women engaged him readily and comfortably. But now, they avoided eye contact, just like Skinny Hat. Now they discerned him with caution, they turned away; they grew tense in his presence. He didn’t blame them, aware he was giving off a different signal now. Women appreciate easy confidence and are turned off by any grasping desperation. Jack hated his new status.
She took off her hat and placed it on her vanity table. Removing clamps, she swept her head to let her hair flow freely. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was drawn in a subtle frown. She sat upon the carpeted bench and pulled closer to the table. Staring into the mirror, she gently ran her right hand down the hand-carved engravings of its mahogany frame. The light from her lamp challenged any personal delusions with glaring honesty. With a soft pad, she began to remove facial makeup and powder. The stubborn tears kept sabotaging her efforts at remaining calm. The faster she wiped away the streaks, the faster the stream would continue. She tossed down the pad, knocking over a perfume bottle, propped her elbows on the vanity, and buried her eyes in her hands. She would not let the night hear her sobs.
Jack opened the door to his Life Quest Gallery and dropped his laptop bag on the welcoming bookcase. The gallery was modestly successful but still known only to local residents and their friends. In a way, Jack wanted to keep it that way: a well-known secret to the select few. It maintained an air of elitism, which is very significant to the art world. It was a modest gallery, with only three exhibition rooms. Amanda and Jason had engaged in a long debate about the color of the walls. Jason wanted a pale white or cornsilk. He explained that the neutral walls would place all the observer’s focus on the paintings. Amanda wanted a lavender or deep purple, close to eggplant or plum. She felt the color would be a marketing devise, a color associated with their gallery. Jack came up with a creative compromise. The entrance foyer became pale rose and two rooms were cornsilk. The special finale would be lavender. The bookcase was the same rose as the walls, making it unobtrusive and blend into the hall. Glancing at several of the books, he was again reminded of Marilyn’s influence. Every month, she used to discover a new artist, a budding genius. His or her masterpieces would be found in their books. Freddie O’Hara’s “Abstract Dreams” was her last great afflatus. They organized a gallery opening for him. Freddie was distraught when he got the news about Marilyn; but Jack insisted on proceeding with the exhibition. Freddie thanked him for his reliable support under such dire circumstances. Jack knew part of his own motivation was selfish. The event was an extension of Marilyn; it retained some of her enthusiasm. He could sense her presence as art critics and valued clients perused the fresh novel paintings.
He noticed a book containing the works of Ashley Farber, a wispy thirty-something with a soft voice Jack always suspected was over-done. She walked through the gallery as if she were practicing slow dance moves and maintained a fixed stare that concealed emotions like a vault. But Jack liked her art. In a mixture of Salvador Dali and Edvard Munch, her works combined realistic evocative scenes with frightening dream symbolism. Like moving between parallel worlds, the observer serves as witness to an existential moment and then falls into a nightmare. Freud and Jung would’ve loved Ashley. Marilyn liked her creative skill but was uncomfortable with her affect.
The book was a compendium of provocative works. Suggestions of erotic skin and curves melted into deep fathoms of indefinable but frightening abstractions. What was Ashley trying to communicate? Did she even know? Did some early trauma force her to combine the sensual and the horrific? Marilyn was right to be threatened by the young artist, even though they were old friends. She was seductive even from a distance. Her books invited the viewer, in fact dared him, to try to penetrate her mysteries.
Death has a way of redefining everything. The deck is re-shuffled. Your cards change. A new strategy is required. Jack was desperately lonely in his grief. A squelched desire pushed for expression. A year ago, Jack found Ashley to be a youthful entertainment; but he now stared at her picture in the back of the book with a tortuous indecisiveness. She was, after all, a peer to Marilyn.
Several gallery staff greeted him as he walked to his office with Ashley’s book and his laptop. He was cordial but friendly as he nodded or smiled back to each one. Amanda Jennings, the gallery manager, asked him if he’d like a coffee and he readily accepted. She knew how he liked it. Jack dropped the book on his desk and turned on the laptop. He was scheduled for an organizational meeting with a new artist and needed time to prepare. Amanda arrived with the coffee and reclined comfortably on a soft chair facing him. Jack sniffed the coffee.
“Don’t worry,” she noted with a sympathetic smile. “It’s not Hazelnut.” Amanda was his manager for over a decade.
With a nod and a grunt, he took a long sip. “Ah, thank you. It’s good.” Amanda mentioned a few arguments with their curator over spacing and clustering. Jack smirked. “So what else is new?”
“We finally recognized a theme that even the artist hadn’t realized.” Her enthusiasm never faded when it came to art exhibitions. “I love when that happens. The epiphany moment! Once we saw that, grouping flowed easily.”
“Nice,” replied Jack. “Is the lighting OK?” He knew the questions almost by rote.
“Most of it should be subtle, indirect; but several need spotlights.” She put down her cup and leaned toward him. “Jack, how are you?”
Jack gazed back at her. “Does it show?” He wanted to move on, at least at work.
“We all share it,” she explained. “So obviously we’re more tuned in to you. A typical client wouldn’t notice.” She redirected the conversation. “So, answer me.”
With a tense jaw and pursed lips, he said, “It hurts, Amanda. Going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning are the worst times.”
“Call me any time, OK? I’m hurting too. So don’t be selfish.” Amanda and Marilyn met in college. Amanda had introduced Marilyn to Jack.
“OK. It’s a deal.” She left to make a few calls. Jack sat silently for several minutes, lost in memory as well as anticipation. Every season held links to previous years with Marilyn. But the book on his desk called to a potential future. Perhaps another embrace, a moment of dissolving into another lover, would do him good. Ashley is young and, despite her air of invulnerability, he suspected a fragile interior. He didn’t want to just use her; but he was open to the possibility of something truly mutual.
He kept the phone numbers of all the artists in his cell phone. She was only a click away. But he hesitated. A poem came to him. It was happening more and more. He worked the keyboard with frenzy, creating with words what others do with paint.
“Oh, Roger,” she sighed while staring at the photograph. “Damn you!” She had decided to clean out her dresser drawers, to purge painful associations. But when she found the photograph, time stopped, all life was frozen still. The memories forced their way into her consciousness despite her desperate efforts at distraction.
The photo recorded her 35th birthday when they were celebrating in Paris. They climbed the winding staircase of the Eiffel Tower, and stopped at each level to read the posted information. Often her head rested on Roger’s shoulder as they gathered the facts and history. Gazing at the twisting ironwork of the Tower, she poetically made a metaphor, in which she remarked about their twisted and entwined lives. Roger elaborated upon the concept, saying they were vines of ivy that could never be separated. Never. He was almost done with his medical training and anticipated one of several possible internships. She gladly put her own plans on hold to help him toward his goal. After all, that’s what love is, a joining of hearts, a willing sacrifice for the sake of their union. When they reached the top of the stairs, they entered the antique elevator for the final ascent. She stared up at the gears and ropes of the mechanism as he kissed her neck. Out on the final platform, they circled the entire balcony, observing the city below them. Then they kissed, unashamed, with the courage that derives from complete trust. It was a long, wet kiss with tongues that were ecstatic. After their sustained embrace, the crowd applauded. A man sang a romantic French song in deep baritone and several people joined him. To her own amazement, she did not blush. Her face glowed as she smiled at her life partner and he look upon her with certain love.
A Caribbean cruise to St. Barts as the sun was setting. The trimaran skimmed the water with barely a ripple and the captain passed around a special punch. Dolphins jumped and gulls howled as they approached the island. They had reserved one of the few rooms available. It was a hut on stilts with a view of both sunrise and sunset. The staff provided an excellent seafood dinner with divine spices and a creole sauce that lingered pleasantly in her mouth. The hut appeared primitive from the outside but the interior was luxurious. She reclined on the feathered bed as Roger slowly peeled away her flimsy clothing. He took his time; there was no hurry. They had all the time in the world. He enjoyed every shred as she responded to his stimulations. The lotion she had purchased further intensified the sensuality of the moment. It had the redolence of coconut and mango, lavender and cherry. She no longer pleaded with him to “do it”. Instead she lost herself in the pure delight of each second. It was a wonderful way to celebrate his completion of medical school. Once he completed his internship, they would marry. She dreamed of the beautiful children they would create together from their love. He worshipped her and she was completely lost in his radiance.
Friends had tried to warn her. They said she was playing with time and fate. But she only laughed. Their attachment was intense, their passion never subsided, and their boundaries were gone. The trust and familiarity was absolute. How could that ever change? Before her mother passed away, she said things. “Gather ye rosebuds, my darling. Time is a woman’s worst enemy.”
“Oh, mother,” she moaned. “You knew. I was a fool.” Then she reconsidered. “No, I wasn’t. I was in love. Love is a state of grace with trust.” Her face turned into a grimace. “It was a betrayal. Will I ever love enough again to trust anyone like that?” She thought about betrayal. Was it Roger who betrayed her? Or was it life itself? Or perhaps she had betrayed herself by investing all her energy in him at the expense of her own destiny? The ancients cursed the Fates. They had those supernatural forces to blame. How convenient for them.
Jason Aronson stood his ground with his arms folded. He turned his head as far away from Amanda Jennings as physiology would allow. “I’m the curator,” he hissed in a dramatic aside. “It’s my job to interpret the work.”
Amanda rolled her eyes and inhaled deeply. “I’m not trying to outshine you, Jason. I’m only saying your interpretation was too theoretical. A typical visitor would feel inferior or inadequate.”
“It was a standard rendition,” he snapped back.
“We want the gallery visitor to feel comfortable. We want them to return.”
Jack looked at his two dedicated colleagues and rapped his fingers on the desk.
They stood before him like two supplicants awaiting a supreme judgment. “As usual,” he stated, “You’re both right.” Jack was tired of their bickering and always found a middle ground. “Jason, your interpretations are wonderful. Amanda, help him to simplify it for a general audience.” They glared at each other and Jack added, “Play nice. Work together. The dynamic tension makes for a wonderful exhibition. It always does.”
With a “tsk” from Jason and a grunt from Amanda, they both headed for the door.
Jack stopped rapping on the desk. “Jason, could you wait a moment? I want to ask you something.” Jason replied with a quick “Sure” as Amanda left the room mumbling to herself. Jack motioned for him to close the door and Jason complied.
Jack sat by the desk with thumb and index finger on his chin. Jason fidgeted with a pen and crinkled his brow. “I know these arguments seem silly to you but I always want people to appreciate the depth…”
“No, it’s fine,” Jack interjected as he maintained his pose. “You know Ashley Farber, don’t you?” Jack reclined in his chair and dropped his arms.
“Well, actually, my significant other knows her,” explained Jason. “They did a couple of photo shoots together.”
“Is she seeing anyone now?” Jack gazed off into the distance.
“I’ll have to ask Peter,” he replied, relieved that Jack was not annoyed with him but actually confiding to him. “Er, Jack?”
“It’s none of my business, I mean it’s your life. But I do care about you.” Jason lowered his eyes, then looked directly at Jack. “She’s really very young.”
“I know. Maybe I need some young vitality to break out of this morose mood. I miss her so much, Jason. I can’t move on.”
Jason sat down on the armchair in the office. “Of course. Marilyn was special,” he said with sincerity. “You’re only human. The loss was so sudden. But, Jack,” Jason leaned forward, closer to Jack. “If you invest your energy on another young woman, you’ll be heartbroken again.”
“I thought about that. If I can accept that it’s a temporary fix, I should be OK. My engine is stalled. If we can have some fun, with no promises, I think she can jump-start me. She’s a free-spirit with flexible values.”
“I’ve been there,” said Jason. “When I lost Hank, I went a little crazy with other guys. It helped at the moment, but the lonely times came back. It all felt so empty.
Then I found Peter. It was the solid relationship, not the random parade, that saved me.”
Jack released an amicable grunt. “Maybe after the parade, you were then ready for a solid relationship.” Jack pursed his lips and gazed off to the side. “Then again, how solid is anything?”
Jason shot Jack a rakish smile and humbly replied, “I never thought of that.” He did a quick raise and lower of his eyebrows. They both laughed. “So you still want to call her?” Jack nodded in the affirmative. “OK, I’ll check with Peter.”
“Thanks, Jason.” As Jason smiled and headed for the door, Jack asked, “Do you ever just call him Pete?”
“Hmm. Let’s see.” With added dramatic effect, he exclaimed, “Oh, Peter!” Then he went with “Oh, Pete.” He bit his lip decisively. “I’ll stay with Peter.”
Jack laughed and shook his head in amusement. “Get outta here, you faggot!”
“I will, you dirty old man.”
Once again alone in his small office, he had an internal dialogue to himself. “Damn, she is young. He’s probably right.” But Ashley always sent him signals that she was available if ever he was. Of course, he is a gallery owner and she was marketing herself. If he took the risk, he could end up feeling very foolish; on the other hand, if he faltered, he’d forever wonder about the possible adventure with her. He’s a big boy; he understands rejection. Of course, there was a connection between Ashley and Marilyn. Then, with a final knock on his tabletop, he concluded with, “Damn it all. I want her in my life.”
Ashley walked into the Art Class wearing a loose-fitting robe. The art students, who were jabbering and laughing a moment before, went suddenly silent. With the style of a dancer, her posture was straight and poised. Her long slender legs escaped her robe as she moved with a confident stride to the center platform. Her hair was clamped back and her amber eyes pierced the atmosphere. The class instructor, a handsome woman in her mid-40s, nodded to Ashley with a familiar smile. “I don’t want your sketches to insult our model tonight,” she said as several students grunted. “Of course, no painting can do Ashley justice.”
“Thank you, Gabby,” voiced Ashley in her deep soft tone. The students knew their strict instructor as Gabrielle Winston; the use of “Gabby” was alien, out of context, for them. Ashley unclipped her hair and a golden stream descended upon her shoulders and across her face. She sat on a stool with her legs extended. Several male students turned away in a futile attempt to maintain the image of mature sophistication. But anticipation of further exposure led to the clearing of several throats.
Ashley took over the session. “This is a full nude exercise,” she said to no one’s surprise. “It is important to overcome the initial jolt. The mystery, the tease, only serves to agitate the artist. This stifles creativity.” Ashley stared around the room with a sense of generosity toward the students who were being respectful and composed. She rose from the stool and faced the audience. She let her robe slide from her body, leaving her completely nude. She had shaved away her private hair and removed her flats to free her feet. “Go ahead,” she invited them. “Look at me. No shame. Be curious.” For fifteen minutes, she posed and twirled for their benefit. “We have to be comfortable with each other, natural, like a day at a nude beach.”
Ms. Winston could never control Ashley. She just let her create the atmosphere.
She joined in the moment. “When you feel comfortable and ready to draw, raise your hand.” Most of the female students raised their hands readily at the first direction. One female, a stunning lesbian, took her time to everyone’s entertainment. Two males finally forced their arms up in surrender.
Ashley approached the last holdout. He watched her coming toward him and raised his arm quickly. The class burst into laughter. She stood before him, nude and beautiful, and stared into his eyes. He courageously stared back at her.
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